SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – There’s never been a better opportunity for Jason Day to shed the label of golf’s nearly man in the majors.
Yet to hear Day here at Whistling Straits, it’s clear that his biggest opponent Sunday isn’t the birdie-making phenom who seems hell-bent on capping an already historic season.
It is Day himself.
With a two-shot cushion over Jordan Spieth and his first solo 54-hole lead in a major, Day sounds as though he’s trying to talk himself into winning this PGA Championship, preaching “patience” and “discipline” and “focus.”
“It’s all the boring stuff, really, that you guys don’t want to hear,” he said, “but it’s really the honest truth that I’m trying to get out, because I can’t get in my own way.
“The moment I start seeing what Jordan is doing or what (Justin) Rose is doing or the guys behind me are doing, the moment I see I’ve made a mistake here, I should have done this, I get in my own way. And I can’t let that happen.”
If heartbreak is a prerequisite to major glory, consider Day fully qualified to break through.
Dustin Johnson often gets labeled as golf’s hard-luck loser, but no one has thrown himself into the fire more often than Day. This is the eighth time in his career that he’s been inside the top-5 in a major heading into the final round. All he has to show for it so far are learning experiences.
Though Day has earned his first multiple-win season on Tour, this year has been defined by his close calls in the majors.
First came the U.S. Open, where he shared the third-round lead despite a scary bout with vertigo.
Then, last month at St. Andrews, he soared into the lead but made 12 consecutive pars coming home – including a birdie putt on the last that he left short – to finish one shot out of a playoff. It was his ninth top-10 in a major since 2010.
“I’ve done all the hard work, especially over the last four or five years, to get to the point where I actually believe in myself,” he said, “to know that I’m one of the best players in the world and can beat anyone on my day.”
Day, 27, possesses a rare combination of power, finesse and moxie, and he sure looked ready to assume a leading role Saturday at Whistling Straits, recording six consecutive 3s on his card to stake himself to a two-shot lead.
Even Spieth, playing a few groups ahead, stopped to take notice of Day’s torrid run.
“I saw Jason was at 16 under,” Spieth said, “and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. When is he going to slow down?’”
Soon, it turned out.
Day’s rally came to an end on 15, when he pulled his approach into a greenside bunker and needed two shots to escape, leading to a double bogey. He appeared poised to immediately bounce back from that mistake, smoking an into-the-wind, 260-yard 3-wood on the par-5 16th, but his ball trickled over the back of the green and into a gnarly lie near the collar.
“Looked like someone stood on the bloody ball,” he said.
Day made par on the easy hole, but showed some grit by running in a 27-footer on 17 to regain a two-shot lead.
Now comes the hard part.
He is the sixth player in history to hold at least a share of the 54-hole lead in three consecutive majors.
The other five guys won at least one major in that span – even the most tormented Australian of them all, Greg Norman.
“I think the hardest thing for a player is when they’re trying to close, they kind of get in their own way, start thinking to themselves if they can do it, if they can’t do it, is the shot too hard, is the shot too easy,” Day said. “A number of things can happen, especially on the final round of a major championship. I’ve done all the hard work right now to get into contention, to have this lead. So tomorrow I just need to be patient with myself, and I need to make sure that I stay disciplined with my targets.”
Trouble is, Day might already be overthinking his position.
Only a few minutes after Spieth ambled into media tent and talked about relishing another chance to win a major, it was announced that Day was postponing his media obligations so that he could sneak in a range session before dark.
As Day striped long irons in the fading daylight, his caddie/swing coach, Colin Swatton, crouched behind him and recorded cellphone video of each swing.
Day had just shot 66, with eight birdies and an eagle. Seriously, what else was there to work on?
“I’m really excited just to get to it tomorrow,” he said.
Denying Spieth in the final group Sunday would be a huge boost for a player still looking to realize his awesome potential.
No player in the game is as comfortable in his own skin as Spieth, a player who is keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses, of how his body reacts in the most critical moments. Day is still learning, sometimes painfully, what it takes to close out tournaments. Seven times in his career he has held a 54-hole lead. Only once has he gone on to win, back in 2010.
“Sometimes it takes a while before you finally see how you’re supposed to do it,” he said. “It would be very gratifying. It’s delayed gratification, rather than just instant gratification, which most of us tend to want. But it’s the work and the process that we’ve put into our game to really build us up to the points or possible wins.”
For golf’s nearly man, the possibility of a breakthrough has never been greater.